The North American Jewish students sat on plastic chairs under the blue-and-white-striped tent, sipping thick black Turkish coffee as they listened to one Israeli Arab family’s tale of woe.
A widow with nine children had illegally built a home in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in Israel, only to have it demolished by the government, leaving her homeless.
The students were in Israel on a recent trip sponsored by Birthright Israel, which offers free trips to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds. They sat with the members of the extended Arab family next to the site of the demolished house, and listened to Busayna Dbait, coordinator of the Shatil mixed cities project, a project of the New Israel Fund.
Dbait, who is an architect by training and lives in Ramle, was showing the students around Ramle and Lod, explaining the history and politics of the Arab neighborhoods in the two traditionally mixed Arab and Jewish cities.
Susannah Gordon-Messer, a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., shook her head in confusion. “No one’s come up with an alternative to demolishing illegally zoned houses?” she asked. “There’s got to be a better way.”
It has been a complex, eye-opening introduction to Israel for Gordon-Messer and 39 other college students who are participating in a new Birthright program, “Peace & Politics.”
The students are some of the nearly 700 students on Hillel’s December-January Birthright missions. Despite reduced numbers caused by the ongoing Israel-Palestinian violence, Birthright registered close to 4,000 participants for its series of winter missions.
The organization stipulates that the Birthright trip must be the first organized tour of Israel for participants — in other words, family trips don’t necessarily disqualify otherwise valid applicants.
The group, which is exploring the complexities of Israel’s political situation, was originally supposed to be two distinct groups.
One group, led by the Anti-Defamation League in conjunction with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was planned as an advocacy-training mission for Birthright students, many of whom have been confronting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on their home campuses.
The other group was organized by Hillel and the New Israel Fund, a philanthropic partnership that works for equality and social justice for all Israeli citizens, and was supposed to focus on those issues.
“We wanted to be involved in Birthright,” said Laura Kam Issacharoff, director of media relations for the ADL in Israel. “We thought we could offer something substantial and build off other missions.”
As the fall progressed, it became clear that because of dates and timing, there were not enough students for two separate trips, and Hillel decided to combine the two groups.
For the Peace & Politics trip, that meant one bus for 40 students.
With a handful of students on the right politically, another handful on the left, and the majority in the center, there was “a spectrum of opinions,” said Keith Krivitzky, director of campus Israel services for Hillel. “We knew it wasn’t an ideal combination, but we wanted to see how it worked,” he added.
Many of the students said the mixed group created a more stimulating, thought-provoking trip through the political complexities of Israeli life.
“We ask the same questions to each person, and get a different answer every time,” said Gordon-Messer, who admits that she knew only “the basics” when she first arrived. “Then we duke it out on the bus.”
The group’s 10-day trip included standard Birthright tour stops geared for first-time visitors to Israel, such as the Bahai Gardens in Haifa and an archeological dig.
The tour also made less traditional stops. They met with Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who spoke openly and candidly about his views of the intifada, the matter of anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment, and Palestinian life while under siege.
They heard from Shaul Goldstein, the mayor of the Gush Etzion regional council, representing a bloc of 14 Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, and were surprised to find themselves sympathizing with the plight of the Jewish settlers.
They drove through poor Arab neighborhoods in Ramle and Lod, shocked by the garbage piled by the side of the pothole-ridden road.
“These are things that I knew nothing about,” said Gordon-Messer, who describes herself as a Jew with little Jewish education, who wanted to do something to mark her senior year in college. “I’m happy to leave here more confused than when I came.”
Not every Birthright participant arrived in Israel with only a basic understanding of the Jewish country.
At times, it was obvious whether it was an advocacy student or a social justice crusader who was asking a question during a tour stop.
The ADL participants were more likely to wonder about whether anti-Israel sentiment can be considered anti-Semitism while those on the NIF trip wondered more about everyday life in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
But what surprised many of the participants is how much they have learned about both sides of the spectrum.
“I come from the left, but I wanted to learn about the right,” said Mark Belinsky, a sophomore and social justice major at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “We all tested the waters for the first couple of days to find out where everyone stood, but with this situation you quickly learn that there’s no easy fix.”
For Dan Yagudin, a senior at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and an Israeli native who moved to the United States at the age of 10, the Birthright trip was a chance to meet and talk to people who want to create a new vision of life in the Middle East.
“The trip’s approach is not to find the solution, but possible solutions,” Yagudin said. “There’s no propaganda, no indoctrination, just open discussion.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.